MY AMAZING CAREER: THE UNNATURAL – Garry Armstrong

I’ve written numerous pieces about my love of baseball. I’ve shared memories of the teams I’ve followed as a diehard fan.

From the Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer in the ’40s and ’50s to Casey’s inept, Amazin’ Mets in the early ’60s.

1969 The Amazing Mets!

To the sons of Teddy Ballgame who, in 2004, broke generations of hearts before smashing the curse of the Bambino and 87 years of futility. I’ve told you about meeting many baseball legends including Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Ted Williams.

Our kitchen wall includes tributes to my personal baseball hero, Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider. I met “The Duke” back when he played briefly with the Mets. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

2004 Red Sox Series Win

Like many New York youngsters of a certain era, I was in the middle of the argument about who was the best center fielder — Willie, Mickey, or The Duke.  We were blessed by having three major league teams in Gotham back in those days. On any given day or night you could listen to Hall of Fame voices like Vin Scully, Mel Allen, Red Barber, or Russ Hodges describing the fortunes of the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees.

On the streets of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens – and, later, Long Island, ragtag teams of boys — identified by their block — played softball, stickball and, if lucky, baseball.  The games began after school and continued, in my case, until the familiar chorus of “Garry, your mother is callin’ you. You gotta go home —now!”

Duke Snider

Sulking, I’d drop the bat, pick up my glove and slowly, slowly walk home. I never heard the guys laughing as I left. In retrospect, I guess they were always laughing as I left the games.

Why?

I was “that kid.”

The last one picked to play on the street team. The kid they played in deep right field and prayed no ball was hit to him. I mimicked Duke Snider’s sweet left-handed batting stance. I set up in the batter’s box just like Duke so I could rip the ball to right field.

I never ripped or hit — and rarely made any contact — with the ball. I looked good. I had style.

In the field, I couldn’t catch routine fly balls or cleanly field hits and hold the runner to one base. I still had Duke Snider’s style, though. I jogged, swinging my arms up and down — in Duke’s regal manner. I was sure I had class even if I couldn’t hit or field.

My misfortune continued as a teenager when I played with the church baseball team. The Luther League.

The coaches probably felt compelled to play me because we were one of only three families of color at our church. Not to play me probably would’ve caused unrest as the predominantly German Church was trying to be progressive in the mid-1950s. No one ever said this, but, deep down, I knew

I was something of an albatross.

The Black kid with no athletic ability. I wanted to be good but I wasn’t. I was sure I’d find my niche as I grew older. I also labored under the illusion that I would gain five or six inches of height, miraculously, one night in my teenage dreams of glory.  My Dad stood six feet plus, My two younger brothers already were taller than me. I always really believed I’d gain those inches when I turned 20. It had to happen. I believed.

By the early ’70s, I was a rising TV news reporter in Boston. My celebrity may have been rising but not my height.  My USMC ID card read 5 feet 5 and a half inches. I’d been the shortest kid as a Marine recruit at the Parris Island Training base back in 1959. (That’s another story.)

In the early 1970’s Boston, only a handful of minority TV News Reporters existed. I was “it” on Channel 7.

When it came to the celebrity/media softball games, I could only hope to shed my athletic ineptitude. I think it was assumed — oblivious to my past — that I would be an asset to Channel 7’s team. I looked fast, had that classic Duke Snider swing and had an elegant gait. It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge.

The color of my skin didn’t guarantee athletic prowess.  Still, there was some hype to my appearance on the baseball field on Boston Common. Adding to my dilemma, the minority reporters on the other teams were good players. They had achieved their bonafides. I was the new “phenom.”

It was awful. The first game I played seemed to last an eternity. I was the leadoff hitter. Big mistake.

I did manage a weak single in 3 or 4 at bats. I botched most of the balls hit to me in right field. I blamed it on the glare from the lights.  They believed me and gave me “attaboys”.  The rest of my Boston baseball/softball career was, in the words of Sir Charles Barkley, “terr’ble.”  I remember some of my Channel 7 colleagues shaking their heads when I showed up for games. One of them, a legendary cameraman, used to giggle and laugh “Oh, Geerey … no … no.”

One of my early show-cased appearances on Channel 7 featured me in a Walter Mitty-like series. One of the Mittyish assignments had me working out, in full uniform, with the Boston Red Sox. I believe a young Pudge Fisk was catching as I dug in with my Duke Snider stance. The Towering figure on the mound supposedly tossing easy “BP” stuff to me was former fireballing right-hander, Bob Veale.

Veale was now a Sox pitching coach. I figured he’d take it easy on me. As I leveled my Duke Snider stance, I glanced out to the mound. Big Bob Veale seemed 8 feet tall. He had an evil grin on his face.

Baseball season!

The first pitch was by me and in Fisk’s glove before I could begin my swing. Pudge giggled louder. Veale’s grin grew bigger. Remember, cameras were rolling on me for this ballyhooed TV feature.

I think I ticked the second pitch which only incensed Mr. Bob Veale. He reared back and fired what Dennis Eckersley now calls “Hot, high cheese”  to me. I swung, probably 5 seconds after the ball was caught by Pudge Fisk who was now laughing.

At Fenway

Most of the Sox players were smiling or laughing quietly except for Johnny Pesky who offered me solace. Pesky and I would be friends until he passed away. For some reason, he took a liking to me even though I clearly had no athletic skills.  Class act — Johnny Pesky.

It remained for Teddy Ballgame to put everything in perspective. We were chatting about stuff. I’d hit it off with Ted Williams who rarely bonded with the media. I suspect Mr. Pesky was my liaison.

Johnny Pesky

Williams asked me to show him my swing. I did. He tossed a few pitches to me. I missed all of them. Teddy Ballgame tapped me on the shoulder, smiling, “Garry. You need to see the ball before you hit it or try to hit it.  Forget it, Pal”.

I still have fantasies about being a 70-something “Roy Hobbs.”

19 thoughts on “MY AMAZING CAREER: THE UNNATURAL – Garry Armstrong

  1. You’re a class act, Garry. You know your strengths and weaknesses. Loving the game and having an opportunity to meet and greet with some of the greats must have been monumental in the reward department. I could hit the ball, I just couldn’t run fast enough. Spring to first base, all good, but after that, meh! I was great at basketball and volleyball. I sunk that ball every dang time without fail. (That’s another story) but I sure loved this one. You rock!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve loved reading about your career in the media and your baseball Garry. Fantastic post. And very entertaining. Thanks for sharing this with us 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alli, thanks. I can laugh now about my wretched play back then. It wasn’t so funny when I was playing. My love of baseball enables me to shove my playing ineptitude to the back of my mind. I can even sympathize with some players who are having a rough go of it.
      The Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis just ended a historically bad batting slump. I think he was 0 for 54 before breaking his slump against the Red Sox recently. I think most people – regardless of the team they follow — were happy for Chris Davis. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for him, playing in the national limelight with mega media coverage — dealing with his batting difficulties. He’s also in the middle of a multi-year, mega contract which just added fuel to harsh tongued commentators and fans. It’s very hard to hit that little baseball.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I bet it is! These things do happen to people, it’s how they cope with it that matters. And it’s amazing that time can change how we see episodes in the past as we look back. Often the sting of less successful ventures gives way to a more light-hearted view and acceptance. I know it has with me. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You could make a whole chapter of that Garry. Sounds a bit like me and golfing. You know those practice swings – I got very good at those, but always missed the ball when trying to hit it.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Leslie, that also was me in golf. One of my work friends a golf buff – vowed to help. He took Marilyn and me to a golf practice range. He patiently showed us the basics. Marilyn had a good eye and the ball squarely. She just lacked strength to hit the ball far. I “hooked” the ball great distances the few times I connected. That was it for me and golf.
      Leslie, you touch on something important. I never really practiced the basics in baseball. NEVER! It was just grab your glove and go play. Maybe if I’d practiced the fundamentals when I was young, things would’ve turned out differently for me. It’s weird that I never thought of that. It’s especially troubling when the legends talk about practice being a mantra for their success.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When we were kids we just went out and played. Nothing much to do with practice (other than the piano). One thing I really enjoyed about golf was the beauty of the scenery.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve always appreciated the neatness and symnetry of golf courses. As a teenager, I used to caddy for women. They frequently hit the ball into the bushes and followed me. That was kind of hinky for a teenage lad.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It was usually a nice warm sunny day too. Don’t know anything about the bushes. I used to hit straight down the fairway – that’s if I hit the ball at all…. 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great piece, Garry! I’m sure that many other fans of a sport have felt this same way about lack of skills. There are many ways to enjoy a sport:) How great that your career offered the chance to meet and get to know some of these baseball legends!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Becky, thanks so much. I just felt it unfair that someone so passionate about baseball couldn’t play a lick.
      The only sport I showed any skill in was cross-country. I began running on my high school team and did okay. I never won a race but had stamina — a must in cross country. I always FINISHED races which boosted the teams’ total points. I continued running until I was in my 50’s. I used to run along the Charles River in Boston — at dawn — before reporting to work.
      I ran and won a 5K race. That was my athletic triumph. Some of us — just don’t have “it”.
      Becky, you’re right about my fortune to meet the baseball legends in my radio and TV career. It was especially satisfying to the kid who couldn’t hit or field. Some of them appreciated my candor when I shared my stories of ineptitude. So, in a way, things worked out for me.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Becky, I know it sounds romantic — running along the Charles River at dawn. It was convenient. I lived in an apattment complex across from the Charles. all I had to do was jump into my running gear, elevator down and out. Cross the street to the river’s running path. The path was always busy with runners at sunrise.
          The “Banacek” TV series used that scene for its hero, George Peppard. Peppard told me, swore to me that he didn’t use a double in his running scenes. I made him squirm.

          Liked by 1 person

    • DC, Duke Snider was so graceful on the field. He seemed to glide across centerfield, making difficult catches seem easy. His only problem, he had problems as a lefty hitter against southpaws. I recall one game when Manager Walter “Smokey” Alston had Duke hitting SEVENTH in the order against a lefthander. Duke hitting SEVENTH? Couldn’t believe it. He did get one hit in that game but wasn’t a happy camper.
      So glad to hear about Duke’s success as a commentator with the Expos. I’ve heard from others that he did a nice job. He was the complete pro.

      Like

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